Bookhounds of London offers three different kind of campaign settings: Arabesque, Technicolor and Sordid. This time out I’m going to go Sordid, and discuss the crime of murder.
Murder was an obsession of the Thirties. People read about them all the time – Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers made their careers out of murder – but apart from the fictional variety there were plenty of real killings to occupy headlines. Men like Doctor Crippen, who killed for money and finally fled, bloody-handed, with his lover Ethel le Neve, only to be caught on the SS Montrose while fleeing to Quebec. Or Doctor Buck Ruxton, who bludgeoned his wife and her maid, cut up the bodies, and then lied and said she’d left him. Then there’s Alfred Rouse, the blazing car killer who picked up a hitchhiker and set him on fire in an attempt to disguise Rouse’s own disappearance. Or Nurse Hopton of Gloucester, the poisoner, and any number of trunks with torsos – and other parts – shipped off to railway stations, the better to delay identification.
And when the murderer was safely arrested, there were other murderous celebrities to occupy people’s attention. Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the famous British pathologist who worked on so many bodies, was always news. Detective Chief Superintendent Edward Greeno was making a name for himself collaring some of the most notorious criminals of the age, as was Fabian of the Yard, aka Superintendent Robert Fabian whose memoirs became fodder for a BBC series in the 1950s.
We sometimes forget this, but the reason why writers like Sayers and Christie could make a living from writing crime novels was that their contemporaries were utterly obsessed with crime. It was what they saw every day in the news, which brought them stories of people – it might be your next-door neighbor – who’d sliced up their spouses, or been sliced up themselves. The criminals and those who caught them, all celebrities, clamored for attention every day. Then of course there were the trials, with their attendant photographers, reports, juicy transcripts full of gossip-fodder, and so on and on.
A truly Sordid campaign has to include murder. The Sordid London is the London of “prostitution, drugs, poverty, desperation, extortion, and cruelty”, as the rulebook puts it, and you can’t conceive of that kind of London without there being murders every day. Not the kind of killings that wind up in the comfortable stately homes of old England either; no, these are the brides in the acid bath, the abortionists with dead children in the basement, the elderly beaten to death for their jewellery and whatever cash can be looted from their bank accounts. These are the stories that will be on the front page of every newspaper, with the photo supplements that helpfully point out exactly where the body was found.
But how to introduce these murderers to the campaign? Well, there are at least two options. First, as background noise. If the Keeper is going to present a living world for the players to inhabit, that means there’s going to be a lot of things going on around them which they’re aware of, but do not necessarily directly affect the game. Income tax will be going up, up, up, for a start, and there will be rumblings of trouble in Europe. Yet another Council for Peace will try to persuade everyone to disarm or to compromise on war reparations, and be rudely told where to stick the notion. There will be roadworks and gas explosions, advertising campaigns and sermons. No doubt the Duke of Windsor is in the news again, as he and Wallis Simpson hob-nob with Hitler. All of these things will be going on all the time, and if the Keeper uses this as background then the players ought to be reminded of it all the time. Extra, extra, read all about it, the newsboys call, or perhaps the BBC drones on in their offices during the off hours. It can be something to mention at the beginning of a scene, or as part of an important moment.
Say for instance that the character is due to find something in the newspaper. Well in that event it isn’t just a newspaper, it can be something like: ‘buried on page 12, underneath a photo array showing exactly where the Battersea Torso Killer hacked up his victim, you find …’ Or alternatively something like ‘the radio announcer is describing the crowd outside Birmingham Prison, where baby killer Victor Parsons is about to be hung, as the jingle of the doorbell announces the entry of a customer.’ Yes, it’s flavor text; but it’s text of a very deliberate sort, intended to reinforce the style of campaign you intend to play.
The other way is to make the killer a customer. There are any number of chemically or medically inclined murderers of the Twenties and Thirties. Aside from the doctors and nurses there’s people like Rouse, trying to use modern methods to disguise their crimes, and Haigh wasn’t the first acid bath killer by any stretch. People like that are going to have disposable income and a desire to spend it. Some of them, no doubt, will want books. They may not be particularly interested in Mythos tomes, of course, but that does not matter. What does matter is their usefulness as NPCs, either by supplying knowledge or services that the characters do not themselves possess, or by providing a non-Mythos hook to a horror-themed scenario.
Abilities: Athletics 4, Biology 1, Bargain 4, Credit Rating 1-4 (varies), Chemistry 3, Flattery 3, Filch 6, Health 8, Law 1, Medicine 1, Oral History 3, Preparedness 6, Reassurance 4, Scuffling 9, Weapons 4
Damage: -2 (fist, kick), -1 (knife)
Special: dose of arsenic always handy by (nausea, vomiting, convulsions, coma, death); Health Difficulty 7 or suffer +1 damage for 4 rounds. There would be no treatment in the Thirties for severe arsenic poisoning.
Occupation: Lady’s Maid
Three Things: Perpetually shocked at the wickedness of the world; addicted to thrillers and crime novels of all kinds including true crime accounts; odd chemical odor seems to follow her wherever she goes.
Notes: Ethel is the guiding mind in the Pratt partnership; Mister Pratt, a habitual drunkard, is either in her good graces and therefore allowed to come near her, or driven off with curses and blows if not. Mister Pratt was once a butler in a great household, but his addiction put paid to that and all other forms of permanent employment. Ethel moves from employer to employer every six months to a year, and usually has excellent references. Some of her employers – old Miss Willets, crumbling Miss Jefferson, aged and deaf Mrs Fowlkes-Willoughby – went missing soon after Ethel went into service with them, but in each case the old ladies were without family or friends and their disappearance went unremarked. As far as the neighbors are concerned they went abroad for the good of their health, on doctor’s orders, and their loyal, helpful maid kindly stayed behind to lock the houses up. They’ve stayed locked up ever since. Were the police to check Mister Pratt’s tumbledown East End dwelling, particularly the acid-flecked drains in the yard, they would find something greatly to their interest. Ethel’s fortunes seem to flourish and die remarkably quickly; for a brief time she is flush, and goes to all the best places, but soon afterwards is stony and looking for another job. Ethel picked up some of her knowledge from her experiences as a nurse during the War, and the rest from books. She’s always keen to add to her body of knowledge, and never fails to pick up the latest crime novel.
See also: Ephemera